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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Turkey elects an Islamist president

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

Last Tuesday, Turkey's Parliament, the Grand National Assembly, elected Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul of the ruling, Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the country's president. Although Gul failed to secure the constitutionally mandated two-thirds majority in two previous rounds of voting on August 20 and 24, he was easily elected in the third round, held by simple majority.

Turkey has a parliamentary form of government, but the president can veto legislation and official appointments. The AKP government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had sought to elect Gul to the presidency earlier this year, but the nomination ran into strong opposition from the country's staunchly secular establishment - including the armed forces - who accuse Gul and AKP of having a hidden Islamist agenda bent on undermining the strict separation of religion and state. Faced with a major political crisis, Erdogan called a snap parliamentary election in which AKP was returned to power with a slightly reduced yet sizable majority (as well as a substantially larger share of the vote), and the party renominated Gul as its presidential candidate. While the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) boycotted the election once more, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Democratic Left Party (DSP) took part in the vote and presented their own candidates, leaving CHP fairly isolated.

Although the armed forces engaged in no small amount of sable rattling prior to the election; the military brass did not attend Gul's swearing-in ceremony; and newly-elected President Gul was given a frosty reception while attending a graduation ceremony at a military medical academy, relations appeared to be improving by the end of the week, and the armed forces may be coming to terms with the inescapable fact that Gul is now their president and commander-in-chief - for the time being.

In truth, the armed forces have little in the way of realistic alternatives at this juncture. A military intervention against a popularly elected - and popular - government that has delivered sustained economic growth would in all likelihood isolate Turkey from the West in general and the European Union in particular. In fact, the vice-president of the European Parliament recently went as far as warning that if an armed coup were to take place, the EU would freeze all relations with the country "forever."

At any rate, President Gul may be the last Turkish head of state elected by the Grand National Assembly. Next October, Turkey returns to the polls for a referendum on a package of constitutional amendments that would provide for, among other things, the direct election of the president for up to two terms of five years (as opposed to the current single term of seven years).

But the AKP's plans for constitutional reform don't stop there. The Erdogan government is working on a new constitution to replace the existing one, drafted by the military regime that held power from 1980 to 1983. While the new constitution is expected to be a more liberal document that will guarantee individual rights and freedoms, and clarify the roles of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, some fear it may be used to dilute or move away from the official Kemalist dogma (the principles laid out by Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey), which could set the stage for yet another showdown between the government and the secular elite - or more to the point, the armed forces.